He­len Macdon­ald: Given to fly

The au­thor and nat­u­ral­ist re­flects on the ‘strange crea­ture’ that is her best-sell­ing mem­oir, ‘H Is for Hawk.’

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The mem­oir “H Is for Hawk” finds its au­thor, He­len Macdon­ald, in a des­per­ate place. Her father, a pho­to­jour­nal­ist, has died sud­denly, and the grief is ti­tanic. Her body feels un­fa­mil­iar. She can’t sleep. She ex­pe­ri­ences a “quiet, and very, very dan­ger­ous” form of mad­ness. She at­tempts to get right, to “make a new and in­hab­it­able world,” but do­ing so seems im­pos­si­ble, and it doesn’t help that she is sin­gle, child­less and un­em­ployed.

Macdon­ald be­comes ob­sessed, or rather re-ob­sessed, with crea­tures that have fas­ci­nated and ter­ri­fied her since she was a girl: goshawks, “spooky, pale-eyed psy­chopaths that lived and killed in wood­land thick­ets.” The birds, she writes, “are fa­mously dif­fi­cult to tame,” ner­vous beasts that “live life ten times faster than we do.” An ex­pe­ri­enced fal­coner and nat­u­ral­ist, Macdon­ald de­cides to adopt and train a goshawk. She names it Ma­bel. The ex­pe­ri­ence goes as smoothly as las­so­ing a fun­nel cloud.

Beau­ti­fully writ­ten and fre­quently crush­ing, Macdon­ald’s ac­count of liv­ing with Ma­bel, which she de­scribes as akin to “wor­ship­ping an ice­berg, or an ex­panse of sliprock chilled by a Jan­uary wind,” was among the most ac­claimed books of 2015. A New York Times best seller, “H Is for Hawk” ap­peared on too many year-end lists to name here, won Bri­tain’s Sa­muel John­son Prize for non­fic­tion and no doubt turned an un­told num­ber of read­ers onto fal­conry.

Macdon­ald will ap­pear March18 in Co­ral Gables to dis­cuss “H Is for Hawk” and “Shaler’s Fish,” a 1999 col­lec­tion of na­ture po­ems that was re­pub­lished in Fe­bru­ary. Last week, she re­sponded to ques­tions via email from Dubai, where she was at­tend­ing a lit­er­ary fes­ti­val and meet­ing with other fal­con­ers. The fol­low­ing is an ex­cerpt of that ex­change.

In an in­ter­view last year, you de­scribed “H Is for Hawk” as “Deep down, a book about a mis­er­able woman, a bird, and a dead au­thor.” It is, of course, much more than that, but given your de­scrip­tion, how sur­prised were you by the suc­cess of the book? What does it mean to you to have such a per­sonal book be read by so many peo­ple?

It has been a sur­prise. More than a sur­prise: I’ve been as­tounded and thrilled by how many peo­ple have read it, and how many liked it. I knew as I wrote it that it was a strange crea­ture, some­thing that wouldn’t fit in any par­tic­u­lar genre — book­sell­ers have told me of their frus­tra­tions about where to ac­cu­rately shelve it. As for the per­sonal na­ture of the book? I sup­pose I don’t feel anx­ious about the book be­ing re­veal­ing or ex­pos­ing, partly be­cause the events it de­scribes hap­pened awhile ago, and I’m not quite the per­son in its pages any­more. But also be­cause I hope that it is, at heart, a book about be­ing a per­son, rather than be­ing me. We all ex­pe­ri­ence losses in our lives, and we all have to deal with them one way or an­other. Not ev­ery­one gets a hawk. Not ev­ery­one falls apart the way I did af­ter a par­ent dies. But we all have dark times when life be­comes un­rec­og­niz­able and we won­der how we are go­ing to make it through. We all have times when we want to es­cape who we are.

Have you heard from peo­ple who were in­spired to adopt a goshawk af­ter read­ing “H Is for Hawk”?

No one’s said this to me yet. If they did, my ad­vice would be: “Please, don’t!” Even ex­pe­ri­enced fal­con­ers find goshawks a chal­lenge. Hav­ing said that, I have heard from read­ers who’ve be­come fas­ci­nated with fal­conry af­ter read­ing the book and who’ve vis­ited fal­conry cen­ters and met with fal­con­ers to find out more. That’s a good thing to do. If you are se­ri­ous about tak­ing up this an­cient art, then the way to go about it is to first read some good fal­conry books, con­tact your lo­cal fal­conry club and the North Amer­i­can Fal­con­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, find a lo­cal fal­coner, see them fly their hawk or hawks, and see if you can get ap­pren­ticed to them. Fal­conry is highly reg­u­lated in Amer­ica, thank good­ness, with lots of ex- ams and in­spec­tions. Would-be fal­con­ers need a lot of free time, huge ded­i­ca­tion, suf­fi­cient land to fly a bird and the abil­ity to be sym­pa­thetic and cour­te­ous to a wild an­i­mal. But hav­ing said all that, if you are dead set upon it, there is noth­ing quite like fal­conry. It’s an as­ton­ish­ingly rich and re­ward­ing re­la­tion­ship marked by re­spect and trust on both sides, and can give you ex­tra­or­di­nary in­sight into the na­ture of wild minds and wild places.

What was it like for you to re­visit the po­ems in “Shaler’s Fish” prior to its be­ing re­pub­lished last month?

It is fas­ci­nat­ing to be re­vis­it­ing those po­ems! I wrote them a long time ago, many in the early 1990s, back when I was a lit­er­a­ture stu­dent. That sig­nif­i­cant dis­tance has made re-read­ing the po­ems feel a lit­tle like work­ing out the com­pli­cated pat­terns on a tree trunk or on a snail shell, in that they are fa­mil­iar things to me, yet strange and in­ter­est­ing to look at very closely. They were never meant to be easy reads, but ex­ist as com­pli­cated, re­fracted things, full of dead ends and strange syn­tax, and odd lyric sur­faces with rhyme bub­bling through. I’ve not writ­ten po­etry for a long time. I think I will again.

In your “On Na­ture” col­umn for the New York Times, you’ve writ­ten about an en­counter with a wild boar, dis­eased trees and the his­tory of field guides, among other sub­jects. Whatis it that you look for when con­sid­er­ing a new col­umn?

I’ve loved writ­ing about how we en­counter na­ture: how we speak about it, use it, think about it, con­struct ver­sions of it that are mean­ing­ful for us. Na­ture is in­ex­tri­ca­bly bound up for us with sto­ries we have told our­selves about the way the world works. I have a par­tic­u­lar fond­ness for writ­ing about the cul­tures sur­round­ing am­a­teur nat­u­ral his­tory: peo­ple joy­ously and whole­heart­edly ob­sessed with trees, birds, spi­ders, lichens. I’ve looked to per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence as the start­ing point for many of th­ese col­umns: spend­ing time on a mushroom hunt with an ex­pert am­a­teur my­col­o­gist, or watch­ing vast lines of cranes de­scend­ing at dusk to roost on a Hun­gar­ian lake. What draws me most to writ­ing about na­ture is that it’s ev­ery­thing there is. We’re part of it. And yet it’s in ter­ri­fy­ing trou­ble, al­most ev­ery­where. It’s not hard to find it an over­whelm­ingly in­spir­ing sub­ject.

I re­al­ize this is a ques­tion you must get asked of­ten, but how is Ma­bel?

I’m very sad to say that she is no longer with us. A cou­ple of years ago, she died very sud­denly of a fun­gal in­fec­tion called Aspergillo­sis — it’s air­borne, hor­ri­bly vir­u­lent, in­cred­i­bly hard to treat even if de­tected in time, and kills many wild hawks. I miss her dread­fully.


He­len Macdon­ald took this selfie in early March in Dubai, where she was at­tend­ing the Emi­rates Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val and meet­ing with fel­low fal­con­ers.

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